Sunday sermon from July 7th - the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist.
Today is our patronal feast day – the Nativity, or Birth, of Saint John the Baptist. Saint John has seven feast days throughout the year, and churches are not usually named just in general in honor of a saint, we pick a specific date on the calendar. And today is the day. (Hence, strictly speaking our full name is the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist Orthodox Church).
The fact that we celebrate Saint John’s birthday shows that we recognize his great significance. If you look at all the holidays and feast days of the church, you’ll see that we celebrate only three nativities, three birthdays – the Nativity of Jesus Christ, also called Christmas, where we celebrate the Incarnation of the Son of God and the coming into this world our Messiah, our Savior. Then we celebrate the Nativity of the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary. She was the one who gave birth to the Messiah, on behalf of all humanity she took part in the beginning of our salvation.
It makes sense to celebrate these two nativities. And it also made sense for the Church to celebrate the Nativity of Saint John, about whom Jesus Christ once said, “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11, Luke 7:28). He is the greatest human being to ever be born. Imagine that, among the billions and trillions of people to be born, Saint John is the greatest!
That’s why we specifically celebrate his birthday. And today I would like to look at the significance of Saint John in the history of salvation, and the significance of his birth for us, who live in the twenty first century.
What did Saint John’s birth signify two thousand and nineteen years ago? He was born to a childless, elderly couple. They were not simply old, they were well beyond the age of childbearing. Yet, they never stopped asking God for a child, even when it did not really make sense to keep asking for one.
And, as we heard today, their prayers were answered. Archangel Gabriel appeared to Zachariah in the altar of incense. Zachariah was a priest, and he was praying for his family and for Israel. He was praying for a child and for the salvation of the world, for the coming of the Messiah. Little did he know that both of his prayers will be answered on that day.
Gabriel appeared and said, “Zachariah, your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
At the birth of this baby two things were accomplished – an elderly couple, that was previously barren, received a son, and the beginning of the final steps of the preparation of humanity for the Messiah were taken.
The archangel told Zachariah that John “will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will turn may of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. [He will] turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
In other words, his task was not small, even before Saint John was conceived, he had great expectations about him. In our hymns that we sang to Saint John yesterday and today, we call him the voice of the Word and the lamp of the Light.
Christ is the Word of God, and Saint John is Christ’s voice. What do we hear when someone speaks with us? We hear their voice first, then we hear their words. Saint John, in everything, came before Christ, as the final stage of preparation for the Messiah.
This was his significance – to go before Christ and to prepare for the salvation those who want to be saved. Saint John went ahead of Christ even in death, to hell, to announce to all the righteous the coming of their Savior.
But what would be the significance of Saint John’s birth for us today? His task was accomplished almost two thousand years ago. He prepared the people for the Messiah. He literally pointed to Christ when they asked him.
I would suggest that the significance of today’s feast day for us lies in Saint John’s parents – Zachariah and Elizabeth. As I already said, they were old and they were childless, but they were not hopeless. Even when it made no sense to have hope.
In the Gospel reading, we heard today that “both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” This is important because, if you read the Gospel accounts carefully, you’ll notice that only the righteous people and demons recognized Christ for Who He truly is. It was not His disciples, who followed Him for almost three years, but the righteous people and the demons.
Zachariah and Elizabeth were also ridiculed and shamed for being childless. In that time, childlessness was considered by some people who had no idea what they were talking about to be a curse by God. It was not a curse, but it did not make it any easier for Zachariah and Elizabeth.
And, as I said, they remained hopeful and trusting in God’s mercy till the very end. It was not easy, and it was shameful, but their righteousness, their faith, saved them.
From their example we can learn one lesson – life can be unfair, and life can be a lot harder than we can take, but hope in the Lord will never fail.
There is a phrase that Christians like to use in hard times, which is like most of the time. The phrase goes like this – God doesn’t give more than you can handle. This phrase is not only wrong, it is also unchristian, it is not biblical.
As Christians, we believe that everything happens according to the will of God. But we can’t explain how or why. And we can certainly say that sometimes we get a lot more than our fair share. And it’s hard to say why.
Saint Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, tells them about his hardships, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, Who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
He was under pressure far beyond what he could endure, but this happened so that they would rely on God, and not on themselves. Zachariah and Elizabeth endured disgrace among their people, yet they relied on God, and not themselves.
Their faith, their reliance on God is what I would like to leave you with today. Even when life seems hard, or unfair, or unbearable, when nothing makes sense, trust in God and rely on Him.
We do not know how or why things happen in our life, but we do know that God keeps His promises.
Through the prayers of the righteous Zachariah and Elizabeth, and their son, the great Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John, may the Lord our God grant us strength and patience to endure to the end.